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Forgotten Nara 'pyramid' back in the public eye with demise of neighboring hotel

The pyramid-like Zuto, now more clearly visible after a neighboring hotel was torn down, is seen in Nara on Sept. 27, 2021. (Mainichi/Yusuke Kato)

NARA -- Zuto, a national historic site in the ancient Japanese capital of Nara is enjoying an attention bump, after the hotel that had obscured it from the view of passersby on nearby roads was torn down.

    Zuto's unique structure and stepped design has led to its informal moniker, "Nara's pyramid." Its "sudden" appearance from the shadows of a hotel in a Nara residential neighborhood is attracting many tourists keen to have a look and take photos.

    The structure, dating from the Nara period (710-794), stands atop a square base measuring 32 meters per side, with seven square layers of soil and stone creating a 10-meter high tower. In 767, the first year of the Jingo-keiun era, Jitchu, a Buddhist monk at Todai-ji temple who established the Shuni-e ceremony still held every year, is said to have built the structure under orders from Todai-ji's head priest, Roben. It is said that the head of Genbo, a Buddhist monk with major influence over politics who was later exiled to Dazaifu in Kyushu, was buried on the site, and that this was the origin of Zuto's name -- which is comprised of the kanji characters for "head" and "tower".

    Zuto is about a kilometer south of Todai-ji's Great South Gate. The now departed hotel stood immediately to its east, meaning that it wasn't visible without getting up close. According to the Nara Prefectural Government's cultural property preservation department, there is now just an empty lot where the hotel was located until this summer, so Zuto can be seen from some distance away.

    One late September weekday, the Mainichi Shimbun found numerous tourists at the "pyramid." One particularly good spot to take photos is around the Nara Kotsu Bus Lines' Wariishicho bus stop on Nara prefectural highway 80. Standing there, you can just about capture Zuto's entire form.

    Yurina Ito, 20, a university student from the Nara prefectural city of Yamatokoriyama, who was photographing Zuto, said, "My first impression was that it's like an Egyptian pyramid. It's really interesting that there's this strange tower standing in the middle of an ordinary residential neighborhood."

    Takio Yamada, 55, a self-employed man from the Nara prefectural town of Oji said, "I think it's a shame that it's such an appealing spot, but that it wasn't really known until recently. As a history fan, I'm glad it's getting this kind of attention now."

    The Nara Prefectural Government holds special openings of the structure in spring and autumn. Visitors wishing to visit at other times must book at least a day in advance by calling 0742-26-3171 (Japanese language only). For a fee of 300 yen (about $2.70), they can look around the site between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on the reserved date.

    (Japanese original by Yusuke Kato, Nara Bureau)

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